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Cover Story

Manufactured Chaos

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Apr 30, 2001 | From the print edition

How the Delhi government evaded the Supreme Court order on CNG to engineer a state of anarchy?

-- As governance formally surrendered the administration of Delhi to chaos on All Fools' Day, April 1, 2001, the fate of its citizens' health and public transport continued to hang in balance. Ministers and politicians had a field day blaming each other for the chaos and rioting that broke out on April 3. Public transport came to a grinding halt following the March 31 deadline to move all public transport to compressed natural gas (cng). On March 26, the Supreme Court refused to extend the deadline set over two years ago. It was clear that the city was not going to meet the deadline, although the first order to this effect from the court had come on July 28, 1998, in response to a public interest petition on air pollution in Delhi. The court did give a concession to those who had placed orders for their vehicles to be converted to cng or had placed orders to buy new cng vehicles. They could ply their vehicles till September 30, 2001 (see box: Key points of the March 26 ruling). Reports in the media pointed out that the Delhi government believes that it is logistically impossible to meet this deadline.

The Union government and the state government, along with their agencies, have done their very best to ensure that the Supreme Court order on cng isn't implemented. They first created the public transport crisis in Delhi and are now using it as an excuse to shield their incompetence -- giving the impression that Supreme Court is unreasonable in insisting upon the deadline being met. Moreover, government agencies have all of a sudden discovered that ultra-low sulphur diesel (ulsd) is better and cheaper 'clean fuel' alternative to cng (see box: Ultra-low sulphur myth ). This suggestion has come from the Tata Energy Research Institute (see 'The cng sabotage', Down To Earth , March 15, 2001). Even if this claim is taken to be true -- and there is no strong scientific evidence to do that, as of now -- the timing of this suggestion and its endorsement by both Delhi government and the Union government does raise suspicion. It further shows how insincere they have been about implementing the court order.

The result of this attitude is being borne by the citizens, especially people from the lower middle class and poorer sections of the society, who depend on public transport. Violence erupted with angry commuters setting buses on fire and threw stones at them -- less than one-fourth of the 12,000 buses were left on the street. It was a state of emergency. Thousands were left stranded on the streets, jostling to find a foothold on jam-packed buses. The media was flooded with images of people travelling on the roofs of buses and crowding around bus stops. There were reports that a group of four bus operators from Ludhiana in Punjab were plying their cng buses in the capital.

On April 6, six people were injured in northeastern Delhi when a spurious cng cylinder exploded at a refuelling station. The car had another cylinder, which was not spurious -- it did not explode even after getting flung away. At least two newspapers, The Indian Express and The Hindu , reported that the owners of the Ambassador car had gone missing. When police tried to trace the owners, it came out that the person in whose name the car was registered had shifted residence 10 years ago. "Car using wrong cng cylinder explodes"; "Foul play suspected, occupants of car were at safe distance and fled"; "Anti- cng lobby does a war dance" -- these were the headlines in The Indian Express on the morning of April 7. The point that a spurious cylinder was responsible for the accident and not cng technology as a whole was not lost upon the media. A similar incident happened in Mumbai about one month ago. The Mumbai administration responded immediately by tightening regulations to provide gas only to those with authorised cylinders. Delhi obviously didn't learn the lesson from Mumbai.

The government's incompetence also hit Delhi's transporters badly -- even those who are willing to comply with the court order. Red tape prevented a lot of transporters who wanted to comply with the court directions and place orders for cng vehicles or for conversion of old vehicles to cng . Racing against time, they had to first place orders with the conversion companies, take the booking order to the court to file their affidavits, and then rush to the State Transport Authority to obtain the certificate to ply their vehicles till September 30. The process was typically bureaucratic and involved several bribes to touts, a fact that the media highlighted. Another issue that came to the fore in the midst of all the turmoil is that the Delhi Transport Corporation's global tender for conversion of its buses to cng is in a shambles (see box: DTC: Return to tender ).

The situation diffused a little only on April 4, when the court allowed the Delhi Government time till April 14 to issue provisional permits to bus and auto operators to enable them to ply their non- cng vehicles. But the Delhi government had already decided on April 3, in defiance of the court, to allow all buses possessing cng conversion booking receipts and photocopies of affidavits filed in the court to ply without the mandatory special permits. Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit declared that her government was ready to "face punishment for contempt of court" but would not allow citizens to suffer (see interview: "We do not know which way to go" ).

Drama in court
"The Delhi government is making an attempt to hoodwink the public by making statements like they would face contempt for the cause of the commuters," said A S Anand, chief justice of India, on April 4. The Supreme Court bench said it was distressed by media reports about the Delhi government's attitude and found it wholly objectionable. Severely reprimanding the Delhi government, the bench directed P S Bhatnagar, chief secretary to the Delhi government, to file an affidavit on statements made by Dikshit and Delhi transport minister Parvez Hashmi. Media reports quoted lawyers to say the matter was becoming a constitutional crisis. Kirit N Raval, additional solicitor general, refused to represent the Delhi government in court: "I will no longer appear for a government which has decided to act contrary to the orders of the highest court of the land," he said. However, he maintained that he would continue to represent the Union government, which is no less responsible for Delhi's transport crisis, if not more.

It was almost certain that the Delhi government would not be able to meet the September 30 deadline. The court directed the principal secretary to the transport department to compile a list of organisations and companies that have taken orders to convert the public transport vehicles to cng and ascertain the time frame within which they would meet the demand. The state government was severely criticised for failing to issue permits in time to enable transporters to run their vehicles: "If the Supreme Court could work till midnight to cope with the work pressure while affidavits were being filed, why can't the Delhi government rise to the occasion?" the court asked.

Then, there was the issue of the private bus operators who own a bulk of Delhi's bus fleet. Their lawyers had argued on March 23 that the court order need not be implemented as their buses already meet norms laid down in the Central Motor Vehicles Rules. The court dismissed this argument: "No law can be upheld before a fundamental right (right to life) in Article 21. The Environmental Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (epca , also called the Bhure Lal Committee) was formulated under the Environment Protection Act, which can be above all laws." On February 16, the three-judge bench was angry that hardly any private operators had converted their buses to run on cng. The verdict was that the Delhi government has to start registering only cng buses, converted or new. It gave a fortnight's time to private bus operators to place firm orders for conversion or new cng buses, and said that it would hear the case again on February 27. It is clear that the operators had enough time to act (see box: Living on borrowed time).

Meanwhile, the court's anger at the Delhi government also sprang out of the excuses that it was offering. In its status report presented to the court one month before the deadline, the Delhi government asked the court for a three-year extension of the deadline or to allow diesel buses that meet Euro ii emission norms. On February 16, Justice Anand had asked the Delhi government lawyer about the government's intent: "Does the Delhi government share the perception of the court that air pollution is our enemy? If so, how does the government propose to discharge its obligations towards the people?"

Government response
The contradictory positions adopted by the Delhi government showed its lack of commitment to meet the promise it has made to the court. On March 3, 2001, the government had submitted: "In the context of the technological inputs available as of today, cng appears to be the most environment-friendly fuel. Therefore, the government of Delhi accepts the provisions that cng is the fuel of the future." But speaking to reporters later, Sheila Dikshit did a volte-face: " cng is an untried and untested technology. There are other clean fuels. cng is not the only alternative. Its safety is questionable. cng was successful in autos and taxis but not in buses because of the load factor." She admitted that her government was not confident of meeting the September 30, 2001 deadline.

She also said that the Delhi government is planning to file a special leave petition with the Supreme Court, pleading that the September 30 deadline for cng conversion is logistically impossible to meet. The petition will also talk about a study that the Delhi Government is preparing to conduct on cng compared to other 'green' fuels like ulsd . The Hindu reported that an internal report prepared by the Delhi government says that cng buses pose a safety hazard not only to the passengers but also to other road users. Delhi's transport department, environment department and the Delhi Transport Corporation have prepared the report. Another report in the media quoted former transport minister of Delhi, Rajendra Gupta, as saying that both cng and ulsd cause emissions of suspended particulate matter (spm , the main pollutant in Delhi's air). Gupta safely forgot to add that only diesel particles are classified as carcinogenic, as they are coated with polyaromatic hydrocarbons (pahs). Two of the strongest carcinogens known to humankind come from diesel exhaust emissions. No study from anywhere has found such dangers in cng emissions.

While Dikshit has been persistent in her errors of omission, she has now embarked on a mission to make errors of commission. She told the media that she had sought an appointment with the prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, on April 4 to discuss the crisis. The prime minister didn't oblige, and Dikshit went to town blaming him for not being sensitive to Delhi's woes, yet another political stunt.

While the Delhi government was in the thick of things -- getting most of the blame for non-implementation of the order -- the Union ministry has managed to skirt its share of the blame. The Union ministry of surface transport (most) and ministry of petroleum and natural gas (mpng) are equally to blame for sabotaging the court order, if not more. Yet most media criticism has been directed at the Delhi government.

Ram Naik of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Union minister for petroleum and natural gas, was too busy blaming the Congress party government in Delhi. With great self-righteousness, he declared that the transport crisis was a result of the Delhi government not acting in time. A report in The Asian Age quoted Naik as saying that the long queues in front of cng filling stations were due to the fact that the Delhi government had made no effort to inform autorickshaw drivers about the location of the filling stations!

This has let the Union government off the hook, an aspect that has entirely missed public attention. Instead, the Delhi government is following the Union government in tom-toming ulsd . The Asian Age quoted a transport department official on April 8 as saying that "Hashmi along with the Union petroleum minister Ram Naik would put forth the idea of using low-sulphur diesel through the Bhure Lal committee which has been asked by the Supreme Court to submit its report within a month." Union minister for environment and forests, TRBaalu, hasn't made any positive intervention in a matter that has come to a head because the Supreme Court is heeding the environmental imperative. This silence has translated into a blank cheque for narrow-minded business interests that freely resort to misinformation on crucial issues.

Difficult issues
One sticky issue has to do with tourist and transit buses that ply outside Delhi and would not have access to cng outside the city. The court has referred this matter to the Bhure Lal Committee, which has to examine the possibility of getting diesel with sulphur content as low as 0.001 per cent. According to world standard, best diesel has sulphur content as low as 0.001 per cent. The committee has been asked to file a feasibility report on the issue within a month. Even if this sticky issue is sorted out, one crucial issue is the ability of the market to meet the demand of cng vehicles. This takes us into an entirely different area of market dynamics.

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